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Losing the Center (Part 1)

When personal experience becomes the foundation of your sermon.

Every sermon has a center of gravity. Whether the goal of the sermon is to explain, prove, or apply, the expositor must stand on something to make his or her point. In expository preaching, the weight is placed upon God's Word. It is this emphasis that makes a sermon truly biblical. Thomas Long, professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology, observes, "Faithful engagement with Scripture is a standard by which preaching should be measured, and the normal week-in, week-out practice of preaching should consist of sermons drawn from specific biblical texts." According to Long, this type of preaching should be normative in churches. "Biblical preaching in this strict sense should be the rule and not the exception."

But in this postmodern age, a seismic change is taking place, and the reverberations are shaking the pulpit. In postmodern preaching, the center of gravity has shifted away from the text to the preacher's own experience and that of the audience. In this kind of preaching, the traditional relationship between text and anecdote is reversed. Instead of using anecdotes to illustrate the central truth of the text, personal story is the central truth of the message and is corroborated by Scripture. The weight of proof in the sermon does not rest on proposition but on identifiable experience.

When the micronarrative becomes the center of the sermon, personal experience becomes the final arbiter of truth instead of the text.

The term that is often used to refer to this approach is "micronarrative." It is rooted in the thinking of 20th century philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, who asserted that the legitimation of knowledge in post-industrial society occurs differently than in the modern era. Lyotard claimed that "the grand narrative" has lost its credibility for people in the postmodern age. The weakness of these "metanarratives," according to Lyotard, is that they do not fit everyone.

D. A. Carson alludes to this when he writes that the fundamental change in postmodernism has been in the area of epistemology—the way in which we know things.  In the pre-modern era, truth began with God. It was a matter of revelation and tradition. This kind of knowledge was certain because it came from an all-knowing or trusted source.

The modern era did not put an end to tradition, but made it subordinate to experience and empiricism. The perspective of the modernist is characterized this way by Anthony Giddens: "To sanction a practice because it is traditional will not do; tradition can be justified, but only in the light of knowledge which is not itself authenticated by tradition." Therefore, in the modern age, truth was considered reliable when it could be validated by experientially based knowledge—the observable, measurable, repeatable data of science. Postmodernism shifts the locus of knowledge away from the external sources of tradition and scientific method to the internal realm of subjective experience.

In preaching, this change of perspective is reflected in a shift from metanarrative to micronarrative. If a metanarrative is the big story that explains everything, its alter ego is the micronnarrative, the little story that tells others what the world looks like from one's personal angle of vision. The key distinctive of a micronarrative is that it is "local" rather than universal. It is this local perspective that is the source of the micronarrative's appeal and its greatest weakness.

When the micronarrative becomes the center of the sermon, personal experience becomes the final arbiter of truth instead of the text. The Bible does not disappear, and may even play a prominent role in the message. However, a sermon grounded in micronarrative tends to treat the Bible in an ornamental fashion. Biblical texts are strung throughout the sermon like the glittering bulbs on a Christmas tree, giving the impression that Scripture is prominently featured in the message. But in the micronarrative-based sermon, the text serves the story, and not the other way around.

Story has always played a part in evangelical preaching. The use of story in preaching is validated by the fact that narrative is often God's chosen method of communicating about himself. Much of the truth of God's word is conveyed in narrative form. For J. Kent Edwards, there are theological implications in this choice. Edwards warns that genre influences meaning: "The correct genre can enhance and support a message; the wrong genre can distort and even destroy a message."

Author Walter Wangerin describes the power of story when he tells how he used stories to catechize the children of his congregation. "Storytelling conveys the realities and the relationships of our faith better than any other form of communication we have," Wangerin explains, "for in story, the child does more than think and analyze and solve and remember: the child actually experiences God through Jesus and through Jesus' ministry." Some truths may be best communicated by way of narrative.

Story, however, can be a double-edged sword. "People have many ways of narrating the story of their lives" Thomas Long observes. "They can tell the 'Christian story' of their lives, but they can also relate their family story, their national story, their racial story, their vocational story, the story of their psychological growth, and so on." The hope, Long points out, is that the Christian story will function as the "narrative center" of all the other stories. But this is not always the case. Sometimes the order is reversed so that, "the lesser story erodes or replaces the gospel story." This is the danger of the sermon that is rooted in micronarrative.

Despite this danger, micronarrative does have a legitimate place in the message. Jesus sometimes appealed to personal experience to validate his point to his audience. In Matthew 7:9–11 he asks: "Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" In these verses, Jesus appeals to human experience in a line of reasoning that moves from the lesser to the greater. He uses the "local" experience of his listeners as a signpost to point them to the larger metanarrative of God's goodness.  

Personal experience was the evidence offered by the man in John 9:25, when he was questioned by the leaders of the synagogue. The religious leaders claimed that Jesus was a sinner, but the man replied: "Whether he is a sinner or not, I don't know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!" This is the essence of micronarrative: "I do not know everything, but I do know my own experience, and this is what it tells me."

According to Michael Green, micronarratives in the form of personal testimony were an integral part of the Christian witness in the New Testament era and in the early church. The apostle Paul used a micronarrative of personal experience to support his contention that Jesus was the Christ in Galatians 1:11–24. The contrast between his "previous way of life" and his present behavior offered strong evidence of the truth of his gospel. He pointed to the Galatians' personal experiences to help them see the flaw in their slip back into legalism. "I would like to learn just one thing from you" he challenges in Galatians 3:2–3.  "Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?"

The use of anecdotes as sermon illustrations first appeared in Christian preaching in the 6th century, when Gregory the Great introduced the use of non-scriptural stories into the sermon as illustrations of biblical truth. Gregory compiled an encyclopedia of anecdotes, known as exempla. This medieval precursor to the modern sermon illustration database, consisting mostly of miracle stories involving Italian saints, was widely used by the mendicant friars of the 13th and 14th centuries to flesh out the doctrine of the sermon for the audience.

During the Reformation, the dimension of personal experience was evident in the sermons of Martin Luther, who often relied on personal testimony and utilized the first person. Luther appealed to audience experience through "the copious heaping up of linked examples, and the establishment of antithesis through imagined dialogue."

Narrated experiences also show up frequently in the preaching of the great evangelical preachers of the 19th century, exemplified by evangelist D. L. Moody. Moody often incorporated testimony stories into his messages that described his own experience and the experiences of others. Testimony as proof of the gospel runs through all of Moody's sermons.

Testimony also figured importantly in the theology of the burgeoning fundamentalist movement. The use of personal testimony loomed so large in the fundamentalist tradition, in fact, that it appeared in the five-volume theological work that gave the movement its name. George Marsden explains, "Each of the first five volumes, which were otherwise heavy on higher criticism and doctrine, concluded with personal testimony." Fundamentalist theologian J. Gresham Machen contended that Christian experience was "one of the primary evidences for the truth of the gospel record."

However, Machen was no postmodernist. He believed that the micronarrative of the believer's experience was subordinate to the metanarrative of the gospel events. "Christian experience is rightly used when it confirms the documentary evidence," he wrote, "but it can never possibly provide a substitute for the documentary evidence." Machen was convinced that dichotomizing biblical truth and scientific truth was dangerous. He argued that truth is harmonious in nature and that what is true in religion cannot also be false in science and philosophy: "All methods of arriving at truth, if they be valid methods, will arrive at a harmonious result."

This is part one of a two-part article. In part two, Koessler shares more dangers of rooting a sermon in micronarrative, and provides steps to determine where a sermon's center of gravity rests.

John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.

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